Wednesday, December 19, 2012

MEET THE BARON (1934)




Although heavily promoted by MGM in its day, there's only a few minutes of genuine entertainment value in Meet the Baron. Ostensibly a comedy, it's really a cautionary tale (for studios and talent alike) working on two different levels.

Cautionary tale level #1: Throughout the 20th century and beyond, show business has been littered with entertainers who succeeded in one medium or another but washed out in movies. From Fannie Brice to Frank Fay (Broadway), to Andrew Dice Clay to Howard Stern (shock comedy), they were either too hot, too cold or just plain lacking that indefinable something that makes a movie star.



Jack Pearl: From radio superstar
to obscure blog topic.
Take Jack Pearl, for instance. One of the earliest network radio comedians, Pearl was known best as his alter ego Baron Munchausen. A liar of the first order, Munchausen regaled his straight man (known only as Charlie) with outrageous tales of his travels and heroics. Whenever Charlie expressed doubt over these exploits, Munchausen would reply in his comic German accent, "Vas you dere, Sharlie?" 


Doesn't sound like much, does it? Oh, how wrong you are. "Vas you dere, Sharlie?" was the Homer Simpson "D'oh!" of its day. Everyone used it in conversation whether appropriate or not. (When I was in high school, a full four decades after Pearl's heyday, a local radio personality in his 50s was still dropping it in conversation from time to time.)  Ridiculous as it seems now, that single catchphrase was enough to make Jack Pearl one of the biggest radio stars of his time. MGM came calling, no doubt thinking it was signing a box office sure thing. In a word, Oops.

Jimmy Durante looks to God to get him off the movie.
The plot is what studios today would call the backstory of how the baron gained acclaim as a great explorer (hint: he lied about it). With sidekick Joe McGoo (Jimmy Durante) in tow, the Baron kicks off on the lecture circuit at the all-girl Cuddle College, where he falls in love with a housemaid (ZaSu Pitts). His ruse is eventually discovered, but love wins out in the end. Story aside, Meet the Baron is merely one long clothesline on which Pearl hangs his feeble jokes. A scene consisting of a radio interview with the Baron and Charlie has some historical interest to showbiz mavens, being an accurate replication of Pearl's show. Sample exchange: Munchausen is explaining how he was able to fly over the North Pole even after running out of gas. (Try to hear him in your head with a vaudeville-style German dialect.)

MUNCHAUSEN: I stayed up for six months longer.
CHARLIE: Without fuel? But that's impossible, that's against the law of gravitation!
MUNCHAUSEN: I know, but this was before the law was passed.

That other comedians in their prime -- Bob Hope, Stan Laurel, Chico Marx -- would probably get a chuckle with that same bit from today's audiences proves Eddie Cantor's theory: 90% of success in show business in likability. Jack Pearl is annoying. (The extras in the background appear genuinely amused -- people were more easily entertained during the Depression.)


The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Girls try to wash off the stench of Meet the Baron.



For cinephiles, Meet the Baron's potential riches never quite pay off. A sophisticated musical number -- featuring a tickertape parade for the Baron, the Statue of Liberty singing a verse and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Girls taking a shower together -- promises good things, but is short-lived. Ultimately, the problem lies with MGM itself. The studio wasn't good at doing zany like Paramount, nor did it capture the flair for musicals like Warner Brothers. It was kind of like the spoiled rich kid who tries to fit in with the popular crowd at school, but without changing his tux. In retrospect, the most fascinating thing about Meet the Baron is that producer David O. Selznick and one of its six writers (six writers!), Herman J. Mankiewicz, would later go on to Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane respectively. As co-star Jimmy Durante might say, "It's unexplicable, I tells ya!"

This brings us to Level 2 of our cautionary tale. While studios signed flash-in-the-pans like Jack Pearl, they often couldn't see real talent before their eyes. Humphrey Bogart bummed around Warner Brothers for almost a decade when he finally landed his first major lead in High Sierra. Bette Davis was dropped by her first studio, Universal, for lacking sex appeal. And before Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson was just another cog in Roger Corman's exploitation assembly line.

And so, too, Meet the Baron gives us a glimpse of an act that MGM briefly had under contract but not really knowing what to do with, the Three Stooges. At the time, they were still working with Ted Healey, the comedian who put the act together in vaudeville several years earlier. Billed, naturally, as Ted Healey & His Stooges, "the boys" are a welcome relief to an otherwise dreary enterprise. 
Ted Healey & His Stooges and Edna May Oliver salute the Baron. If only they aimed a little closer.



Whether fishing in a flooded basement, avoiding work by playing cards or tearing up Munchausen's room, the Stooges, a year away from starting their legendary run at Columbia, have their act down cold, albeit with some nominal differences. Healey has the ringleader role that Moe would eventually play. Curley ("Jerry" in the credits) is often crosseyed and barefoot. Only Larry is fully formed, tossing out sly one-liners under his breath with consummate skill. They're even involved, if only tangentially, in Meet the Baron's funniest line. Edna May Oliver, the Dean of the college, warns them that if they don't do as she says, they'll "feel my wrath," allowing Healey to chuckle, "Don't try to bribe the boys!" And of course it's always comforting to hear this familiar exchange:

TED: Boys, get the tools.

MOE: What tools?
TED: The tools we've been using the last ten years.
STOOGES: Ohhh, those tools!

Just why that bit, repeated throughout the Stooges' career, makes guys of my generation laugh no matter how many times we hear it, I'll leave for the experts to  analyze. Indeed, their scene in the school basement is so much funnier than anything else in Meet the Baron that I suspect Healey and "the boys" wrote it themselves


As for Jack Pearl, he made only one more movie appearance, the messy but often amusing Hollywood Party in 1934. By then, his career was already on the downslide. Waiting in the radio wings were legends-to-be including Jack Benny and Burns & Allen -- comedians whose humor relied on recognizable human foibles rather than silly accents and stale jokes. Still convinced that his Munchausen shtick was what the people wanted, Pearl wandered in and out of radio until 1952, probably asking a new, metaphysical question: "Am I here, Sharlie?" He died in New York on Christmas day, 1982, aged 88.  

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The original 1933 trailer for Meet the Baron. Leave to the geniuses in marketing to include "Vas you dere, Sharlie?" no less than three times while leaving out the Stooges' best material.

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